Recap of my Season 1 review: I liked it a lot (and not just because of the Trek connection with Anson Mount and Colm Meaney).
When I’ve read reviews for Hell on Wheels written by people who aren’t me, I see the series Deadwood referenced quite a bit. I haven’t watched that show yet, although it’s definitely on my ever-growing TBW list. But, I love me a good western story, whether in the printed form as in Larry MacMurtry, Louis L’Amour, and their ilk, or the television series Bonanza or Gunsmoke, or movies such as Tombstone or The Magnificent Seven. I consider the American western to be a shining example of homegrown mythology. Elements of truth combined with tremendous amounts of fantasy.
Hell on Wheels exists in the same realm as other westerns, where historic realism is subservient to the telling of a good story. The transcontinental railroad was a very real achievement in the real world. The Civil War did indeed happen and is not merely an invention of popular media. But, that’s all part of the background scenery in this show, which is the story about things that never happened in our reality. Fiction does not equal Truth, but it doesn’t have to. Slavish nitpickers, with more stamina than I profess, would probably have a field day picking apart this series based upon historical accuracy. I’d suggest that’s the wrong approach to take if your ultimate goal is to enjoy your viewing experience.
My takeaway from the first season was that this series was at its best when it was about the relationship between Cullen Bohannon (Anson Mount) and Elam Ferguson (Common). The two had an acting chemistry between them that shined brilliantly on the screen. Of course, that had to originate on the page, in the script. But, I felt that the writers were looking for this same reaction between other characters on the series. Only, it doesn’t really happen, at least not with the same story-generating force.
I’m pleased to tell you that the other characters on the show do become much more interesting this season. At the same time, the series dares to go even darker and more violent. Since I’m encouraging you to watch this series if you haven’t already done so, I’ll refrain from spoiling everything for you. I’ll just warn you that main characters die in this season, and the season finale is a devastating one. Good for a story’s second act, where the complications and setbacks should be ratcheted up a notch. Not always good emotionally, however. The viewer becomes attached to these characters, even the more unsavory ones.
After the conclusion of the first season, Bohannon began robbing trains with a group of ex-Confederates, and that’s where we find him at the beginning of Season 2. It made sense for Bohannon to move on from the railroad, because his character motivation all along had been exacting revenge on the Union soldiers who murdered his wife and child in Meridian, Mississippi. Becoming a train-robber keeps him in the same milieu, however, and he had to know he would eventually clash with people he knew from the Union Pacific.
Elam Ferguson, meanwhile, continues to seek a better station in life, eventually becoming security chief of the railroad. Bohannon gets locked up in the Union Army prison and is sentenced to death, but we know that he has more lives than a cat. He returns to a Union Pacific and Thomas Durant (Colm Meaney), whom the Sioux Nation has declared war upon. The Swede (Norwegian, actually)—Thor Gundersen (Christopher Heyerdahl)—continues on his mission as an agent of chaos and mischief, selling rifles to the Sioux, sabotaging machinery and assisting Reverend Nathaniel Cole (Tom Noonan) further along his personal path to Perdition.
Lily Belle (Dominique McElligott) becomes the crucial point of love triangle along with Bohannan and Durant. The prostitute Eva (Robin McLeavy) fills the same role with Elam and Gregory Toole (Duncan Ollerenshaw), with some deadly results. The preacher’s daughter Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) is also in a love semi-triangle with Joseph Black Moon (Eddie Spears), the converted Cheyenne, and Sean McGinnes (Ben Esler), an Irishman who is willing to convert from Catholicism for Ruth. Mickey McGinnes (Phil Burke), who is Sean’s brother (or is it cousin?), continues to try to grow their business.
This happens, then that happens, in the nature of these types of stories. Things are destroyed. People die, as I mentioned before. The upshot of it all is that, at the end of things in this season, it seems that Bohannon is committed to continuing to build the railroad and Durant now seems to be his genuine enemy (rather than just a general antagonist). It also seems like the persistent irritant that is the Swede has been taken care of for good. Or has it?
While I thought this season was as good, if not better, than the first, it still wasn’t a “feel-good” installment. The brutal finale accomplished what it was designed to do, however: it made me want to continue watching the story.
Firewater’s He-May-Be-a-Son-of-a-Bitch-But-He’s-Our-Son-of-a-Bitch Report Card: A
If you’re one of those types who can’t get past 19th century characters with good 21st century dental work, or living conditions that couldn’t have possibly been as clean as depicted in the series, then this isn’t the show for you. However, if you’re a fan of an entertaining story well-told, you should watch this.